How to Shrink Your Church in 12 Easy Steps

By November 14, 2013Theology & Culture

There’s no shortage of articles and books being written about strategies and tactics for church growth and revitalization. With so many churches stagnating or declining, it is no wonder why so many authors are dedicating themselves to offering up solutions. But, there’s one problem with all of these articles and books. They start from the assumption that these churches actually want to grow. Sure, they say they want to grow, but quite often what they really want is to be sure the church won’t die. Wanting to grow, and wanting to avoid death aren’t even remotely the same things. So, for churches who have tried the growth thing and decided it isn’t really working out, I wanted to offer up 12 easy steps to shrink your church.

  1. When a young family who has never been to church struggles with a noisy child who does not yet know how to sit “appropriately” in church, make sure you let them  know that “our children don’t behave like that.” Add in some critiques of their parenting abilities, and make them feel judged just enough that they’ll be too embarrassed to come back.
  2. The next time someone shows up to church in jeans, or in something that isn’t considered religiously appropriate, let them know. Either that or just stare at them until they are uncomfortable. Perhaps they’ll get the hint…that we expect our attire to fit a certain, unwritten code for what’s acceptable.
  3. As soon as someone begins attending a new ministry, make sure they are quickly educated on “how we do things” around here.
  4. At coffee hour or during a potluck, make sure you only sit by people you know really well. That new person can find an empty chair somewhere else.
  5. Insist that what really counts is being able to give the right answers when the pastor asks you questions about the Bible and faith. Outside-the-box thinking, doubts about traditional biblical interpretation, or the inclusion of emotions and experiences when reading the Bible are not acceptable.
  6. Ignore anyone who is having difficulties in their lives. Make church a place where it is important to grin and bear it rather than embrace and share it.
  7. When someone new visits your church, make sure to talk really loudly about “that new person” to your pastor or someone else you know really well. Ask lots of questions about where they came from, who their parents are, and how they found out about the church…and make sure the new person is within earshot.
  8. Make ministries as boring as possible. Set up a list of lengthy rules of what can be done and when. And do not have any fun. Ever. Playing games (unless they are Bible trivia), laughing, and enjoying each other’s company are not godly.
  9. When talking about sin, use “they” and “them” a lot. It’s easier to talk about other people’s sins than our own, and it makes us feel a lot better about ourselves, too.
  10. Condemn new technology. Never entertain the idea of setting up a social media website for your church. Refuse to use email, and insist that popular movies, books, or technological trends have no place in worship.
  11. Point out visitors during the worship service. Ask them to stand and introduce themselves to everyone, or parade them around the sanctuary so that everyone can get a good look at them.
  12. Do not ever explain how anything is done. Everyone who needs to know already knows, and explaining things to anyone who might be visiting – like how we take communion –  takes too much time.

Don’t be overwhelmed by this list. Perfecting just a few items may be sufficient to ensure that your church never grows. And, this list isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add your own “best practices.”

*Have you tried steps 1-12 and still have more work to do? Don’t worry! We’ve got 10 more easy steps in our article “How to Shrink Your Church in 10 More Easy Steps.”

Find out How to Shrink Your Church in 10 More Easy Steps  

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Laura Hall-Schordje

    Great list! I might add this step on vision:

    Recognize your church’s heyday (when the church pews were full and the Sunday School was overflowing) was in the past, and keep trying to return there.

    • Oh yes…this is a great addition. The “Remember when…” and then an all out effort to make it happen the same way multiple generations later.

  • Joy A

    ignore any special needs that a member might have, such as a need for gluten free communion. It’s just too much bother to accommodate someone who doesn’t fit the mold of an “ideal” church member…

    • Oh how many painful times I’ve heard people tell me that story 🙁 Their unique needs were treated as a liability, and they were dismissed.

      • it’s one of the reasons I left the church I grew up in, ultimately leaving the entire denomination…

      • Oh, Joy 🙁 I’m so sorry to hear that. When churches are good, they are really good. But sometimes, they are downright ugly and hurt so many people.

  • Pat Pope

    Boom goes the dynamite! 😀

  • Pat Pope

    “7. When someone new visits your church, make sure to talk really loudly about “that new person” to your pastor or someone else you know really well. Ask lots of questions about where they came from, who their parents are, and how they found out about the church…and make sure the new person is within earshot.”

    Oh and continue doing this even after the person becomes a member, particularly if they are in any way different (i.e., different race, independent thinker, hippie, tatted up, etc.) That will ensure the person eventually just leaves over never being accepted, despite being a member.

  • Linda Gold

    Or what about the week after a new person starts coming pushing them into working at the next church event. Don’t worry about finding out what their gifts or talents might be, just put them into whatever job the last member who died did.

    • When we see new faces as possibilities for taking over jobs we want to get out of…that will send people right back out the door!

    • Laura Hall-Schordje

      Oh yes, guilt them into volunteering then, when they show up, don’t use them because you are used to using the people you know. The longer you let them stand on the side offering to help, the better they will know their place.

      • Oh man!

      • Christopher Matthew

        Unless the new person has proved that they are willing to tug the party line of the church they’re helping at, it is the duty of the vicar to sabotage their vocation, destroy their faith, and leave them in despair.
        I have all too personal experience of this.

      • Oh wow 🙁 I’m sorry 🙁

  • lepton

    Love this list! I like #7, I’m definitely the kind of person people talk about more than they talk to.

    Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am very different and as I have fallen lower and lower in society have had increasingly negative experiences with the church. Desperate for members, the church lost its mandate to expect anything from those who actually show up. This obviously affects those of us who depend on the largess of the community the worst (never mind that simple things like being accepting and including don’t require a lot of sacrifice).

    • I’m really sorry you’ve had that experience, and I wish you had never been made to feel that way. But, I know this happens way more often than it should.

      • lepton

        I think as a person with aspergers syndrome I obviously have more trouble socially… BUT I also have more trouble when I try to talk about improvements that could be made to the church because pretty much everything I think of is existential and often hits people’s pain points (like my suggestion that poor unemployed people be paid to drive other poor working people to work).

      • It is hard for churches to think outside of themselves and their own experiences sometimes. I really appreciated that suggestion of yours. If we could start thinking outside the box, amazing things are possible!

  • Allison

    Be sure to fill all the rows at the back of the church and make the new-comers sit in the front pew where everyone can keep an eye on them. Alternately, be sure to assign someone as the “You can’t sit there; that’s my seat” person in the congregation.

    • Haha! Yes! The “walk of shame” for the first-time visitor…down the center aisle and in front of everyone else.

  • Anne Ardapple

    Let us not forget the new pastor, intern, or ministry coordinator. A consistent reminder of how the previous person did them, song choice or scripture for various holidays or events is necessary. Once again thinking outside of the Box and challenging the norm is completely frowned upon and may be deemed frivolous!

    • Yikes! That would be no fun at all for the new pastor/intern/coordinator…but I know those kinds of comparisons can certainly happen!

    • OH this one hits hard. I’ve been in an ongoing debate about a particular Communion practice that took place at my appointment up until I got here. This practice is specifically taught against by the Church but why should that matter, right? It’s much more convenient to do it wrong than to learn why it’s wrong and then begin to correct it.

      • Wow! Oh, that is a hard one! Sometimes teaching why we do things and what our methods are teaching and communicating about what we believe really helps. Other times, there is such resistance to learning and such apathy. Ugh.

  • Sara

    When I moved to a new town and visited over 30 churches in 2 years, I noted that some churches had no easy way of connecting for new persons – such as a welcome table, greeters at the door, or a card to fill out for more information etc. Rightly or wrongly, that seems like a church that doesn’t want to grow. I also found that it was possible to visit a church, multiple times, and never have anyone speak to you or even look your way (no eye contact). One of those types of churches was made up of the over 70s age-group only. When they did not make eye contact with me or greet me, I got the impression that they may not want the younger (relatively speaking since I’m middle-aged) demographic in their church. They were happy with the status quo…meaning that their church would die out eventually, as churches comprised of only 70+ year old people would do.

    • Oh yes. There are definitely churches that make no effort to grow, and then they wonder why they don’t!

    • Christopher Matthew

      I have a theory that such geriatric churches have connections with elderly homes and nursing homes. As such, they are self-replenishing.
      This is bad for the community because it means there is another place of worship which is not available to them and turns such a church into an effective disincentive for people inquiring into Christianity.

      • Wow…that’s a very interesting viewpoint! I’ll have to think on that a bit!

  • As a pastor I found this funny but more so, incredibly sad. It’s way too true. My daughter went to a church that I attended before I took my pastors job. She was told that a tank top (which was stylish and appropriate) was not what you should wear to church and it only her father knew she had that on. I still have not been able to get her to come to even my church 5 months later. I know it will never go to that church again. But we are all sinners and this list is a result of sinners in a church.

    • Phil, thank you for the comment. I can feel the pain in your post. Thank you for sharing. Most of these things are never things that I experienced personally, but things I have heard about from friends in ministry and friends attending churches. I have had many parents tell me that they were ridiculed for having noisy kids. It made them so embarrassed that they never returned. Another dear friend was told her children were dressed inappropriately because the boys weren’t wearing ties. They had been dressed in the best clothing they could afford, and they never came back to church. You are absolutely right – this list is the result of sinners in a church. Come, Lord Jesus!

  • Well done April, I know all the steps well by experience.

  • Craig

    This may not be what you are asking for, but here is one I have encountered with more than one church that I still am in uncomfortable disequilibrium on…local families ask for a ride to church…the bus line does not run by their house, they have no working car, and they live within 1-2 miles of the church. Over half the church drives right by where the inquiring family lives EVERY Sunday (100% drive within 1-2 miles of their house). Yet when the invitation goes out to the church body that servant drivers are needed, no one helps. Can someone say Zacchaeus (without the wealth)?

    • Craig, thanks for jumping in! Wow! I’m sure that sends a message loud and clear to the families in need of a ride that we really don’t want to see them at church…

  • Elizabeth

    As the parent of an autistic child, we had to leave two churches that were not at all sympathetic to his difference. At the second, too, a new pastor and his wife came to visit and immediately asked me what part I thought evil played in my life. We were told by other members that if we would just spank our son enough he would quit being “like that” and he himself came to think he was autistic because he’d done something awful and God was punishing him.

    We finally found a church that worked for him but even now there are some problems with it. In working with other parents of autistic kids, I learned that most have great difficulty finding a church home. Blind, deaf, and obviously physically handicapped children may be welcome, but not autistic children…too many think that their “behavior problems” are the result of lax parenting rather than something inborn. And yes, I know it’s obvious when a tall ten year old can’t talk clearly, can’t sit still, tries to sing and makes off-key noise instead…or wanders around wanting to shake everyone’s hand and give a rote greeting…but the glares, the suggestions to spank more, the shaming of parents and child, all contribute to why we had no church home at all for some years.

    (Out of increasing sympathy with the elderly, since I’ve recently become one, I would say that apparent unfriendliness may be poor eyesight, poor hearing, and poor memory. I myself have poor face recognition skills, so I don’t know if I’ve seen you before or not.)

    • Elizabeth, I’m really sorry you’ve had that experience, and I know you aren’t alone. The church should be the most welcoming and embracing place there is…and when it isn’t, it is devastating. Thank you for reading and commenting.I’m glad you’ve found a better church, too!

      • CAS

        so sad since Jesus said to let the little children come to him… all kids no matter what they do should be a joy to have in church. they are the future of the church body… and the parents that bring ones that are autistic are brave and must have strong faith.

        this article alone should be printed out & handed to every church member to give them a wake-up call to see how quickly their church could fall apart by doing small things that are so petty.

  • The old church my daughter and I attended liked to have the parents have their kids in Sunday school one hour and the church service the next “to get them used to being a part of a church experience”
    Because I was still stuck in this “I have to follow the rules” mentality, I would try it. Sunday after Sunday. And my daughter hated it. She’s was 6 at that time, the service was 1 1/2 long, the worship was so loud for her and she.got.BORED.
    So one Sunday we left and as we walked by this older couple the wife leaned over to the husband and whispered “someone obviously can’t sit still”
    WHAT THE WHAT.

  • Hank

    You should also mention that it is alright to ignore senior citizens who have been members of the church for almost 40 years because they are just not cool or in the “In Group”.

    • There are definitely churches that do that, and it is such a shame! The church is at its best when all people – regardless of age – learn from each other!

  • Dean

    Be sure to show up on visitors’ doorstep, unannounced and unanticipated, with 3 or more “church officials” within 24 hours of a visitor filling out a “visitor card”. Be sure to ask their befuddled autistic teenager, who was freaked out to come home and find 3 strangers laying in wait, if he would go to heaven if he died in his sleep tonight. Be sure to make clear that the church’s “50th Anniversary” is coming up, and all church attendees are expected (hounded) to tithe an extra 10% for expansion of the parsonage, on top of the 10% tithe all members are expected to give. (Yes, all that actually happened to us 2 weeks ago. We visited a new church and made the mistake of filling out a visitors’ card. It scared the begeepers out of us to come home after dark to find 3 strangers clustered outside our front door. The next day, we sent a very strongly worded email to the pastor, and everybody with an email address listed on the church’s website (amazingly poorly designed website) that such home-intrusive behavior is NOT what Jesus would have done…. We found a followup email in our inbox a few days later from the “visitation lead”, presumably apologizing for the behavior of their over-zealous visitation committee. But we will never know what his email said, because we deleted the email without reading it. His visitor committee blew it, and we don’t care what apologies he has to offer. We will never darken the door of that church, ever ever EVER again…. Pity, because it looked like it might have had some good offerings for our autistic teen. But we don’t care. If the church people will be showing up on our doorstep randomly, and uninvited, and/or applying strong-arm “convert at all costs” tactics to an autistic teen who is very susceptible to high-pressure cult-like sales tactics, we cannot afford to have anything to do with the church, no matter how strong their programs might be….)

    • Dean – oh my gosh!!! What a nightmare!!! Wow…I’m speechless… I’m so sorry that happened!

  • Car

    #13 can be: The pastor pushes his own political agenda onto the congregation and if you don’t agree then you are wrong and condemned.

    • That’d be a sure way to get me to walk out the door! As a pastor, I try to keep politics out of the church…there is more than one way to view the issues, and I don’t see the point in alienating half my congregation!

      • CAS

        no matter who the president… we should always pray for our country… there is only one SAVIOR!

      • AMEN, CAS! No matter who is president, Jesus is King!

      • And yes, we should ALWAYS pray for our leaders. 🙂

  • Bill

    Don’t forget to talk about how needy the church is — pledges, donations, volunteers, repairs — instead of about the blessings the community wants to share.

    • For sure! Sermons and conversations shouldn’t center on “how you can help!” They should focus on the blessings and how we can share them. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Kristin

    Also, when a member has been giving his or her all, working hard and praying, volunteering and serving on ministry teams, never thank that person, and when the person mentions that the dying church needs to open its arms in love and praise and prayer, dismiss the person as a pariah. After the member is gone, sign over how much that person brought to the church and wonder why the person left. Watch the church continue to shrink and repeat all the above mentioned steps again.

    • Ouch! But, so true! Being appreciative goes along way!

  • Terri

    Be partisan. Have meetings to guide members on how to vote. Chastise members who are not with “God’s party”. Make sure there are a minimal amount of chairs so members are forced to pack in like sardines so young families feel like their children are bothering others and people with sensory problems are uncomfortable. Remind the congregation that church is not about comfort. Do not check on members who no longer attend small groups. If a member’s political or social views do not match yours, unfriend them. Bar visitors from communion unless they are a member of your exclusive denomination. After all, other denominations are lesser Christian faiths. Talk about money at every other service. Pressure members to make a public show out of monetary commitments.

    • Far too many of these things happen on way too regular a basis!

    • Teri

      Whoops! Forgot one. Parade out the Chic Filet cow mascot during the service and during church programs. That out to make the gays uncomfortable, but we don’t want them in our midst anyway.

      • Please tell me that never happened anywhere!

  • Your article opens many sound comments, and certainly you can look at any pew row to fine examples of the people in a church. What you can not see or might not comprehend in your article and in many way the people who would not be found in a church, companionship, laughter, care consideration and much more. I trust you will take with humor my views, because under all the commentaries you read or Catholic Church bodies are still a worthy part of our culture.

    • My article is intended to show places where churches can focus on themselves so much that they push others away, but I do love the church. I don’t want it to be a place of fighting, struggle, or self-centeredness. The church Jesus began was a much different place, and there are many churches that get it right 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Terri

    Yes. One of our ministers “interviewed” the Chic File cow during a church service. And the cow also makes an appearance during teen nights. Sure to make a teen who is struggling with this issue feel welcome at church. But the churches like Chic File. They praise the company to high heaven. They don’t care that the company donated money to organizations that try to “fix” gay teens.

  • Forest (D&D Preacher) Ray

    Demand more and more work at the church while budgeting less and less funds to do the work. If one has to choose between going to a family members funeral or working at the Church make sure they work at the church. Tell them to avoid their “heretic family” Publicly chastise the member for any physical ailment such as being diabetic, obese, having cancer. Don’t comfort them when a family member dies or is ill. I had a dear friend take his life just after We graduated High School.It was bad enough my family had no mercy for me but it was worse at church. I was blamed because he never became a believer. Here is a sample I did not use the right words in witnessing, We played that pagan Dungeons&Dragons and God was punishing me and other things not fit to print. Make sure people know that if “they are not born in the church they will never be allowed to lead small groups/Sunday school let alone preach/speak or serve as Elder or Deacon.Remind them how great your family is while belittling theirs. All of this has happened to me.

    • Oh wow 🙁 I’m so sorry you had to go through those things. Churches should be the place where you know you are loved, and people will walk with you through the difficulties in life. When churches are good, they are really good. But sometimes what happens is just evil. 🙁

  • If a new person or new member has an idea, respond with: WE TRIED THAT ONCE AND IT WAS TERRIBLE! Might be cool if the the choir sang it really loud.

    • Haha! Oh, that would make an interesting choir ballad…

  • These are great April. I think #11 is one of the worst, especially for introverts (:

    • Haha! As an introvert myself, I totally agree with that!

  • Katy Flint

    These are hysterical! They are so true though!!